World’s Foremost Orangutan Expert Lectures on Campus

Michele Bowles

The co-founder of Orangutan Foundation International Birute Galdikas, has devoted her entire life to saving our sibling species, the orangutan. She has done everything in her power to end the threats to this endangered species.

Galdikas addressed the campus community on Friday to let people know how special these animals are, and what they can do to help them.

“My life goal is to learn more about orangutans than anyone ever has, then teach everything I know to the public,” Galdikas said.

Since she was 25 years old, Galdikas knew her calling was to help these animals. She began to observe orangutans in the Los Angeles Zoo. She would spend one hour every day for six months inside the orangutan exhibit. She studied their every move and began to understand them more and more with each visit.

In order to make the process go faster, Galdikas, now 65, knew she would need more funding. She approached Louis Leakey, the famous palaeoanthropologist, and convinced him that her project was worthy of investment. He proudly sponsored Galdikas, along with Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees, and Diane Fossey who studied mountain gorillas.

“Louis Leakey opened doors for me,” she said.

Galdikas explained the characteristics that make orangutans so extraordinary, and so close to us as humans. To start off with, the name “orangutan” translates into “person of the forest.” This makes sense, since they share 98 percent of their genetic material with humans. They are not our closest primate relative – the genetic make-up of the chimpanzee is so close to humans that they can share blood transfusions with us.

Like humans, orangutan males do not reach maturity until 18 years old. The females reach maturity at about 15. They have a lifespan averaging 60 years. They spend around 95 percent of their lives in trees. And a male will double, sometimes triple a female in size, averaging around 300 pounds.

The most specific characteristic of orangutans compared to other primates is their solitary lifestyle. They prefer to spend most of their life alone, although youngsters will stay with their mother until they reach the age of 8 or 10.

“I followed a male for 51 days and he only met with a female one time,” Galdikas said. “A male can’t tolerate the sight of another male. And on the other hand, a female doesn’t want a relationship because a male is twice her size and will eat all of her fruit.”

They also have an eight-year birth interval. This is the longest of any mammal on the planet.

Orangutans are primarily fruit eaters. They will resort to eating bark and leafs, if necessary.

“A ripe fruit is a tree’s way of seducing a primate to eat and then spread the seeds across the forest,” Galdikas said.

Ninety percent of orangutans can be found in Indonesia. They can be found on two islands, Northern Sumatra and Borneo. Although these are both habitats for the animals, they are completely different. Northern Sumatra is considered a paradise for the orangutans. This island offers figs, their choice of fruit if flourishing, lower threats to survival and flowing rivers. It is known as the “land of abundance.” On the other hand, Borneo is known as the “wildest place on Earth.” The Borneo forests are not productive.

“It is proven that the orangutans of poverty, the ones that live in Borneo, have statistically smaller brains than orangutans of Sumatra. They put more power and concentration into their stomachs, due to the risk of starvation, than they do to their brains,” Galdikas said.

Borneo also holds the biggest threat of deforestation. More lumber has been cut from this island than all tropical countries combined. Even the areas that are protected by law are being cut down, Galdikas said.

Kalimantan, a forest habitat in Borneo, has had 80 percent of its forests logged. From 1992 to 2002 Kalimantan lost 39 percent of its orangutan habitat.

“It was a [situation] of need combining with greed and it was explosive,” she said.

OFI has been working hard for 40 years to prevent illegal loggers from cutting down any more forest than they already have. They have been called, “a small but mighty” foundation, Galdikas said.

“If you live in paradise and it is destroyed they become unable to adapt,” she said. “Most of the national park would have been gone if we [OFI] were not there.”

Other threats to orangutans include the mining of gold and zircon. Galdikas said that by far the biggest danger to the primate is palm oil plantations. Palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. Companies are clearing acres and acres of forests in order to plant palm trees.

Not only is palm oil foresting ruining the orangutan’s habitat but it is damaging the ozone layer as well. Since the onset of palm plantations, Indonesia has become the third biggest generator of carbon dioxide in the world.

Galdikas said that other than donating to OFI, the biggest contribution someone could provide is to quit buying products with palm oil in them. People would be surprised to find out how many products actually contain palm oil.

“When I stopped using palm oil, the first difference I noticed is that I lost about 10 pounds,” Galdikas said as the audience laughed.

She asks people to donate to OFI so they can continue to help the orangutans. She suggests that people organize fundraisers themselves to help the animals. Shop online at the merchandise store because the proceeds will be donated to OFI.

At the end of her talk she reminded the audience that the outcome of this struggle will depend on the decisions of the people and the products they choose to buy as consumers. It is a way of life, she said.

Galdikas best describes the war of conservation with a quote she heard from Al Gore: “The conservation crisis is a spiritual crisis.”

To find out more details on how to get involved to help the orangutans visit OFI’s website at http://www.orangutan.org.